Count Mark Penn among those unimpressed by the House Democrats’ impeachment of Donald Trump. Penn, who worked as Bill Clinton’s pollster during the 1998-9 impeachment and later on Hillary Clinton’s Senate and 2008 presidential campaigns, blasts Adam Schiff as a political hitman for Democrats angry over Donald Trump’s win in 2016. Americans may not like Trump or even the phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky, but Penn argues that it doesn’t come close to a reason to reverse an election and remove a president.
In an essay for The Hill, Penn argues that Democrats may pay a steep price for their abuse of the system, but that the institutional credibility of Congress will take even more damage:
There is definitely something about all this that the American public doesn’t like, that reasonable people can judge as wrong, but that is quite different than removing a president from office through a process designed to use impeachment as a political vehicle. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was not a truth-seeker — he is on tape soliciting naked pictures of Trump, and he repeatedly exaggerated evidence against Trump over the last three years. He was simply a weapon jamming through impeachment and ignoring fair procedure or legal process.
The last few days in the media have underscored this bias with the release of material from Lev Parnas, who — like Christopher Steele and his dossier before him, or like Michael Avenatti, now out on bail — is a questionable character with obviously wild claims for which he has no proof, including claims against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr, whom Parnas has never met. It was a political dirty trick to release his information and him on the eve of the Senate impeachment trial, and this act alone would have gotten any real prosecutor’s case thrown out.
The second article of impeachment — obstruction of the House by the assertion of executive privilege — is, in my view, wholly without merit. Despite endless allegations of lawlessness, this administration has implemented every court ruling it has lost without exception. Asserting executive privilege is not the same as paying hush money or suborning perjury, as was alleged in the Clinton and Nixon impeachment efforts. President Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, frequently asserted privilege in response to investigations and Holder was even held in contempt of Congress, a resolution he promptly ignored.
That is precisely the same point made by Jay Sekulow yesterday during the presentment of the defense case at the Senate trial. Moreover, Sekulow noted, both Schiff and Jerrold Nadler defended the refusal of Obama and Holder to comply with subpoenas from the House at that time, and called the investigation into Operation Fast and Furious nothing more than a politically motivated witch hunt. That issue had a body count to go along with it, too, and clear violations of federal gun laws to boot.
Penn warns that we are about to see George Washington’s worst nightmare come true if this proceeds:
George Washington’s farewell address about the excesses of partisanship was never truer than today. As America’s only truly independent president, Washington predicted that the growth of factionalism would undermine the execution of our laws and that the “alternate domination” of one party over another would lead to efforts to “exact revenge” and “raise false alarms.”
Washington does indeed seem particularly prescient about this moment in history. While he was at the time concerned by rising factions based on geographical interests rather than ideological or strictly partisan point-scoring, his farewell address warning does indeed sound all too accurate:
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
In my column today at The Week, I argue that we’re almost at the debacle Washington predicts here:
Given the partisan warfare around the impeachment, the trial outcome is all but certain. Of more concern, however, should be the damage done to the legislative branch over the last two decades. This poisonous atmosphere of majoritarian flexing has transformed Congress from a co-equal branch to either the wingman or the executioner of the president. With this partisan war as context, succeeding House majorities will feel freer to impeach any president of the opposing party on any pretext, especially by launching constant investigations that encroach on the executive’s co-equal status and automatically considering any objection to be obstructive. We will either have parliamentary systems with the executive under the thumb of the House, or presidencies entirely unencumbered by an independent legislature.
At some point, we need leadership on Capitol Hill that restores its own prerogatives while respecting the prerogatives of the executive. This would benefit both parties in the long run, and it would return the federal government to actual representative democracy. Unfortunately, after two decades in the trenches of the Democrat-Republican war, there doesn’t seem to be any leaders emerging of that quality — nor a lot of demand from anyone else to produce them.
To prevent this outcome, Penn insists that Democrats need to withdraw their articles of impeachment. Let the voters decide whether Trump’s behavior disqualifies him from another term, as setting this precedent would be far more damaging than anything alleged in the impeachment. This is nothing more than brute-force majoritarianism, and the Senate trial will be more of the same.
If Democrats insist on seeing this through, however, Penn advises that the Senate needs to “end this quickly” and “get back to the business of the country.” That indeed would be a nice change of pace from the past twelve months.